August 1, 2014

Kansas City murder problem demands sustained leadership

Despite five murders in July, homicides are down in Kansas City this year. But violence continues to scar too many neighborhoods and demands a response. If any group has risen to that challenge, it is the Kansas City chapter of Mothers in Charge.

Fliers in hand, Dewanna O’Guinn approached a slowing car with the confidence of a veteran PTA and soccer mom, which she is.

“Hello,” she said cheerfully. “We are Mothers in Charge, a support group helping to control violence in the area. A 5-year-old was shot here last week.”

The 5-year-old boy was shot in his own apartment by someone handling a gun carelessly. He survived, but the mothers’ group regarded the incident as serious enough to canvass Kansas City’s Blue Hills neighborhood with a warning to be vigilant about guns.

When homicide numbers topped 100 last year and again placed Kansas City high on the list of the nation’s most violent cities, we questioned whether leaders were assuming enough responsibility for stopping the carnage. We found that the City Council’s public safety committee and the Board of Police Commissioners both spent less than 10 percent of their formal meeting time in 2013 talking about reducing violent crime and homicides.

The city has seen progress this year. Despite five murders in July, the month ended with 39 homicides in Kansas City, down from numbers in the high 50s the previous three years. Some new police tactics and a collaborative effort by local and federal law enforcement agencies, the Kansas City No Violence Alliance, appear to be yielding positive results.

But violence continues to scar too many neighborhoods, and demands a sustained response.

If any group has risen to that challenge, it is the Kansas City chapter of Mothers in Charge. It is an offshoot of an effort that started in Philadelphia, when a group of mothers who had lost children to homicide banded together.

Their purpose is not just to support grieving family members, but to use their stories as a tool for stopping violence. In Kansas City, that takes the form of canvassing neighborhoods and organizing vigils after acts of violent crime.

But there is more. Police Chief Darryl Forté and Capt. Joe McHale of the No Violence Alliance quickly grasped the value in a group of passionate moms and put them to work.

The mothers are tapped to tell their stories at “call-in” sessions, where people who affiliate with violent groups are told to either accept help and cut their criminal ties or face intense law enforcement scrutiny. Hardened gang members who slump in their seats while police and prosecutors give their talks straighten up and listen when the mothers speak about their slain children and the wreckage a homicide leaves behind.

Rosilyn Temple, the Kansas City chapter’s founder, is called as a first responder to most homicide scenes. Trained in trauma counseling, Temple interacts with families, helping them survive the first awful hours and urging them to help police and detectives as much as they can.

“She has a calming effect on people,” Forté said.

Temple has managed to secure a few months of rent-free office space for her group at 1734 E. 63rd St. Her chapter receives a stipend from the No Violence Alliance to pay for other expenses. About six other mothers are stalwarts in the group. They are in the community weekly or more often.

“We need more of a show of people coming out of their homes,” Temple said. “The more powerful the stand the more the perpetrators will back down.”

One force the mothers try to counteract is hostility toward the police. When O’Guinn mentioned the shooting of the 5-year-old boy, the woman in the car said she’d heard the police were responsible.

“No, the police didn’t do it,” O’Guinn said.

“This isn’t a police problem. This is our problem,” Temple tells people.

Temple and her group are mostly African American mothers who share the pain of losing young sons. Temple’s son, Antonio, was 26 when he was murdered in November 2011. O’Guinn’s 20-year-old son, Ashton, was a student at PennValley Community College when he was murdered in April 2012.

But not all of Kansas City’s homicides this year fit that profile. Two of July’s five victims, Anthony T. Beasley and Adrian S. Reed, were in their 40s. Beasley died in a fight and Reed was shot in a car near Bannister and James A. Reed roads.

The other three homicides did involve young black males. Deion J. Solomon, 18, was on the porch of an east side house when he was shot by someone in a passing car. Darion Page, 21, was found shot to death in a vehicle in a common area of a South Kansas City apartment complex. Early Tuesday morning, Theodore Bass-Brooks died after gunfire broke out at a suspected east side party house.

The very circumstance that “only” five murders in the month of July is regarded as good news speaks to the need for continued vigilance and engagement at all levels. The Mothers in Charge had no choice but to get involved, but that doesn’t mean others, especially city leaders, can sit back.

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